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Beleaguered Bears defense waits for help

LAKE FOREST – To trip and fall is embarrassing under almost any circumstance.

To do so as a gifted professional athlete is even worse. And when it causes an injury, and when more than 64,000 people are watching, it’s, well, … yeah.

No wonder Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton wants to return to the field so badly on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. Melton already has missed one game because of a hard fall in Week 14 that injured his clavicle – as well as his pride.

“I just tripped,” Melton said with a nervous chuckle Thursday at Halas Hall, where the Bears sought refuge from cold rain by practicing indoors. “I’m way more athletic than that play, so I call it being sloppy, because I was running sideways and I kind of stumbled over a bunch of guys’ feet and just fell straight on my shoulder.

“I was like, ‘Why did I even fall like that?’ ”

The Bears have another question in mind: When will their injured starters return?

It’s highly unlikely that Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher will play Sunday in Arizona, but the Bears’ defense could benefit in a big way from the return of Melton and cornerback Tim Jennings. Both players watched from the sideline last week as the Bears (8-6) lost to the Green Bay Packers to jeopardize their playoff hopes.

Although neither Melton nor Jennings has confirmed that they will start this week, signs are good for their return barring an unexpected setback. Both players practiced on a limited basis for a second consecutive day while Urlacher (hamstring) and offensive lineman Jonathan Scott (hamstring) sat out because of injuries.

Bears coach Lovie Smith sheds light on players’ injuries about as often as Staley the team mascot conducts a news conference. But Smith offered a clue about the importance of Melton and Jennings’ availability when asked how he determined whether to push a player to return from injury or to preserve him until the playoffs.

“It’s about winning one game at a time,” said Smith, whose team has dropped to seventh place in the NFC standings. “It’s pretty simple how we look at that. …

“We’ll let the medical staff tell us when they’re ready to go. When they’re ready to go, we’ll always play them. It’s as simple as that. All the guys are making progress that have been held out. All the guys looked pretty good in practice today.”

A setback would force the Bears to rely on reserves in a must-win game.

Minus Melton last week, the Bears shifted ninth-year veteran Israel Idonije from defensive end to defensive tackle and activated defensive end Cheta Ozougwu for only the second time this season. In place of Jennings, the Bears moved Kelvin Hayden to cornerback and re-inserted D.J. Moore into the lineup at nickelback.

The results were not good, and that’s being kind. Idonije recorded four tackles but zero sacks or quarterback pressures, and Hayden and Moore each were beat for passing touchdowns from Aaron Rodgers to James Jones.

Now would be a good time for reinforcements.

“I feel good, body feels well enough to continue playing at a high level,” said Jennings, who injured his shoulder when he tried to tackle Seattle Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson in Week 13. “I just want to definitely make sure my shoulder is where it needs to be strength- and flexibility-wise to go out there and help the team win.

“I know if I feel like I can’t help them at all, then I’m no good out there. I want to continue to make sure it’s where it needs to be.”

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